MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES: THE NEVERENDING DEBATE

Mysticism has long been an attempt to expand the mind and understanding beyond normal boundaries, and mystical experiences were the genesis of religion. Mystical experiences are neurological events where parts of the brain are suppressed in order to more fully utilize other parts. The metaphysical meaning of these experiences has long been debated by theologians, philosophers and scientists.

This is a chapter reprinted from the peer-reviewed textbook Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems by David Cycleback.  

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OVERVIEW

Mystical experiences are altered states of consciousness that seem to the person in the state to take him beyond the normal consciousness and give him a union or experience with a transcendent reality. Mysticism is the area of trying to reach mystical states. 

All religions have their mystical traditions or subdivisions. These include the Jewish Kabbalah, Muslim Sufis and Christian mystics. Some religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and some aboriginal religions, can be considered essentially, or largely, mystical. 

Though commonly associated with religion, mystical experiences involve genuine neurological events that are also experienced by non-religious believers, including agnostics and atheists. It is that the experiences are often interpreted by the experiencer as being transcendental reality that it is associated with religion. Mystical experiences are the genesis of religions.

Mystical experiences have been experienced throughout human history, and many people today have them, whether in religious or secular life. According to a 2009 Pew survey, 49% of respondents said that they had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” Those who said they experienced them included the young and old, religious and non-religious. (Reference: ‘Frequency of spiritual/religious experiences’ religiousnaturalism.orgr).

During mystical experiences, people feel connected to a transcendent reality and often describe gaining profound knowledge and insights. The experiences involve changes in perception or sense of time, space and reality. Time seems to slow or cease to exist, the sense of self and ego dissolves, and the person feel one with the universe. 

According to Andrew Newberg MD, professor of medicine and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the experiencers perceive the physical world in a much more vivid and intense way, as if their senses are heightened ( reference: medium.com). 

The following is famed primatologist Jane Goodall description of her mystical experience:

“Lost in the awe at the beauty around me, I must have slipped into a state of heightened awareness…It seemed to me, as I struggled afterward to recall the experience, that self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself…Never had I been so intensely aware of the shape, the color of the individual leaves, the varied patterns of the veins that made each one unique. It was almost overpowering.” (reference: medium.com)

In his landmark book The Varieties of Religious Experiences, Harvard University philosopher and psychologist William James said that the experiences are beyond words. They cannot be fully explained or communicated to others, just experienced. James was only interested in these experiences, and not the human-made dogmas and structures religions used to explain them.

German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto similarly said that the mystical experience is a-rational, meaning it is a direct experience and not to be explained with reason. (Reference: Mystical Experience/ Rudolf Otto )

VIDEOS

The following is an audio discussion about the nature of the mystical experience from British philosopher Alan Watts : Alan Watts – The mystical experience

The following is an interview with people who have had mystical experiences: “Enlightened Beings Share Their Awakening, Mystical Experiences”

 

METHODS FOR OBTAINING MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES

Mystical experiences can happen spontaneously and without intention for both the religious and secular. However, there have also been intentional efforts to produce them, including via religious and secular practices. 

Religious mystical ceremonies often involve meditation, music, chants, shamanic drumming, dance or such to achieve a trance-like state. 

For believers, these ceremonies are typically coupled with a way of life, including good living, morality, discipline, freeing oneself from lust and greed and anger, having feelings and actions of kindness and charity. Meditations, reciting mantras, focusing the mind on the higher power are supposed to be a part of daily life. For Jews, the daily life, every event, is supposed to be treated as holy. For many aboriginal tribes, living in harmony and reverence with nature, which they consider holy, is a part of their life. Having a practiced, undistracted, meditative mindset is important to achieving mystical experiences, even for the non-religious. For example, serious non-religious people meditate daily, often multiple times daily, while also being mindful throughout their day.

The following are just a few examples of religious mystical practices and ceremonies.

The Mevlevi Sema ceremony is a Muslim Sufi ceremony with music, singing, dancing, poetry and other rituals. The participants try to purify the soul and connect with Allah. They can enter different physical and mental states, in particular during the dancing. 

A famous Mevlevi dance involves the Whirling Dervishes, who whirl to get into a mystical state.

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Whirling Dervishes

Video: Whirling Dervishes dancing

Video: Whirling Explanation by Shaykh Hisham Kabbani

Hindu Yoga involves mental, physical and spiritual practices. Coupled with a proper lifestyle, they are designed to get the person to the mystical state of enlightenment, the ultimate goal of the religion.

There are four methods of Yoga, each designed for different personalities and ways of learning. Hinduism is psychologically modern in that it appreciates that people learn and experience things differently.

Catholic mystical prayer is meditative prayer that Catholics say they use to expand the mind and commune with God:

“Contemplative prayer has the tendency to become ever simpler and more silent. As we gain experience in this form of prayer we need fewer and fewer thoughts, until finally one single thought may be sufficient to find the way to truth and God. Fewer thoughts demand fewer words. St. Francis used the phrase My God and my all’ as his theme of contemplation for a whole night. . . . In contemplation our mode of thinking changes. From its usual restlessness it becomes a quiet beholding and a comprehending, a watching and a witnessing. Our voice changes: it becomes softer and lower. Finally, speech dies down and its place is taken by a silent regarding and longing between the soul and God. If we should reach this stage in contemplation, we should not force ourselves back into the diversity of thought. When simplicity contains the essence, there is no need for diversity; when silence is eloquent, it is greater than words.” — ‘The Art of Contemplative & Mystical Prayer’ by Father Romano Guardini (catholicexchange.org )

The Jewish Kabbalah is a mystical sect of Judaism that does many things to try to personally/experientially get closer to God. Judaism teaches the contradiction that God is both beyond humans, yet humans can have a connection to Him via mystical experience.

Video: Sacred Practice: Kabbalah Practice with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

The Sun Dance is a ceremony of some American Indian tribes of the United States and Canada, primarily the Plains tribes. The ceremonies include ancient songs, prayers, drumming and dances, fasting and the ceremonial piercing of the skin during a trial of endurance.

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Lakota Sun Dance

Video: The Sundance Ceremony 

Taoism is a mystical religion that uses mystical practices, such as Tai Chi, to connect to the perceived flow of the universe. Taoists believe that physical movement, even in how one walks across the room, is important to becoming connected with ‘the way’ of the universe.

Interfaith religions, and many other religious leaders and theologians acknowledge that there are many different personal paths to achieve mystical experiences and enlightenment, based on the person’s personality, background, language and culture. Though one must focus in the specific method, whether it is secular meditation or Christian prayer. The human requires focus, and one cannot obtain enlightenment through proverbial multitasking.

“There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading to the same place. The only person wasting time is the one who runs around the mountain telling everyone that their path is wrong”– Hindu proverb

MEDITATION

Meditation is commonly associated with Buddhism and Hinduism, but is used in all religions and also by the non-religious. Mediation works to calm the conscious mind, to remove the daily conscious chatter and idle thoughts that enter human minds. 

The meditator uses various possible methods to clear quiet. One is to focus on a single thing– a mantra, one’s breath. A common Hindu meditation is to not focus on anything but remove external thoughts as they enter. With the mind quieted, and the conscious thoughts removed, there can be a mental awakening. Buddha and Mohammed achieved enlightenment after lengthy periods of medication. 

“Emptiness meditation — to sit quietly and empty oneself of all mental images (thoughts, feelings, and so on), to ‘forget about everything’, in order to experience inner quiet and emptiness. In this state, vital force and “spirit” is collected and replenished.”– Taoist meditation (thewayofmeditation.com.au)

All religious mystical practices involve meditation in some form or other. It can involve the meditative practice of focusing on a mantra, focused scripture reading, drumming, ceremonies, music, art, dance, even walking or eating. The counting of the Catholic rosaries is a meditative task. Any singular repeated or focused task, even playing chess or knitting, can be meditiative if it involves singular focus and removal of other thoughts.

Nearly all sacred religious scripture alludes to meditation:

“Commune with your heart upon your bed, and be silent”– Hebrew Bible

“Verily, from meditation arises wisdom. Without meditation wisdom wanes”– Buddhism, Dhammapada 282

“He is revealed only to those who keep their minds one-pointed on the Lord of Love and thus develop a superconscious manner of knowing. Meditation enables them to go deeper and deeper into consciousness, From the world of words to the world of thoughts, Then beyond thoughts to wisdom in the Self.” — The Upanishads (Hinduism)

MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES THROUGH SECULAR PRACTICES

Mystical experiences happen not only in religious settings, but secular. Many atheists and agnostics have such experiences when meditating, focusing on work, study, when in nature, and experiencing art, athletics, fasting. Some say the runner’s high, or the athlete being in the zone is a form of mystical state.

“To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature . If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.”–Nobel Physics Prize winner Richard Feynman on the spiritual experience of doing math

“A chess player (said) that when he plays the game, ‘I have a general sense of well-being, a feeling of complete control over my world.’ Similarly, a dancer told him that during her performances, ‘A strong relaxation and calmness comes over me. I have no worries of failure. What a powerful and warm feeling it is! I want to expand, to hug the world. I feel enormous power to affect something of grace and beauty.’”– Psychologist Steve Taylor, Spirituality: The Hidden Side of Sports (ru.org)

 

ART

“Bach is Bach, as God is God” — Hector Berlioz

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The Fox Hunt’ (1893) by Winslow Homer

Art is a common source and device to achieve mystical experiences. 

“It is inevitable that inspired art and illumined writing should arouse the beginning of mystical feelings in the hearts of those prepared and sensitive enough to appreciate mysticism. But even in hearts not so ready, the dim echoes of such feelings are often aroused. This is particularly true of music. If he can lay himself open to the power of beauty in art or nature, letting it get deep inside him, he may receive an intuition or attain an experience as mystical as the meditator’s.”– Paul Bruton, British theosophist and spiritualist, ‘Art Experience and Mysticism’, Notebooks of Paul Brunton (paul brunton.org)

The perception of art is dealt within chapters 23 and 28-34 of Understanding Human Minds in their Limits

By definition, art produces a sublime experience that is more than the sum of its parts. What is telling is that art produces the experience through fiction, artificial devices and the subjectivity of the audience. It expresses things that cannot be directly expressed in reality and literalness. This is a commentary on the human mind and understanding.

“Art is a lie that takes us closer to the truth”– Picasso

University College London neurobiology professor Semir Zeki said that, though they didn’t realize it, great artists were neuroscientists in that they used angles, symbols, colors and other qualities to influence the audience’s minds. 

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Composition VI (1913) by Wassily Kandinsky. One of the first non-representational abstract painters, Wassily Kandinsky was an academic who carefully studied and theorized how colors, shapes and other qualities resonated with the viewer. He was also a devout Russian Orthodox Christian who aspired to make his paintings a spiritual experience for both himself and the audience.

It is also telling that the artistic experience is subjective to the person. People may get similar sublime experiences, but through different artworks. As the old saying goes, art is in the eye of the beholder. This is a commentary on other religious practices that are psychologically interpreted by the individual.

DRUGS AND MENTAL CONDITIONS

Certain drugs have been shown to lead to mystical states. These include LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, peyote and marijuana. Peyote is used in some American Indian ceremonies, and marijuana is sometimes used by Hindus and Rastafarians. 

These drugs work by suppressing the parts of the brain that create geographic and time categories and labels, and allow the intuitive, emotional perception of sensory information that is the mystical experience.

Video: Harvard psychologist and Hindu spiritual teacher Ram Dass on drugs and mysticism

Video: University of Toronto Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson on Mystical Experiences through Psychedelics

Article: Harvard Psychiatrist and Minister Walter Pahke on drugs and mysticism

Some mental conditions have been associated with mystical experiences. These include some forms of epileptic seizures, schizophrenia and bipolarism. 

Video: Scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s experience after having a stroke

“Ecstatic epileptic seizures are a rare but compelling epileptic entity. During the first seconds of these seizures, ecstatic auras provoke feelings of well-being, intense serenity, bliss, and ‘enhanced self-awareness.’ They are associated with the impression of time dilation, and can be described as a mystic experience by some patients.” — Markus Gschwind and Fabienne Picard, Neurology Department at the University Hospital of Geneva (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4756129/)

Link to Article on psychiatric medicine and spiritual states by psychologist Lynn Vanderpot 

 Link to Paper on Schizophrenia and mysticism by Joseph Parmas and Gram Henrickson of the University of Copenhagen (Mysticism and schizophrenia: A phenomenological exploration of the structure of consciousness in the schizophrenia spectrum disorders)

Link to Article on epilepsy and mystical experiences by University of South Carolina-Aiken philosophy professor D. B. Dillard-Wright 

 

THE DEBATE ABOUT THE NATURE, MEANING AND AUTHENTICITY OF THE MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES

While there is no debate that they involve genuine neurological experiences, there is an ongoing and ultimately unanswerable debate over what are the musical experiences and what if any metaphysical/spiritual meaning they have: if they are authentic views of transcendent reality, merely delusory/hallucinatory states of the mind, or some combination.

 

RELIGIOUS TRUE BELIEVERS

Many religious believers believe that mystical states are authentic, direct looks into a transcendent reality and even God. They believe either that these states and knowledge are given to them by God, or the altered state involves a cleared mind that allows them to see truth.

“My most formative religious experiences were a series of mystical experiences. They began to occur in my early thirties. They changed my understanding of the meaning of the word “God”-of what that word points to-and gave me an unshakable conviction that God (or “the sacred”) is real and can be experienced. These experiences also convinced me that mystical forms of Christianity are true, and that the mystical forms of all the enduring religions of the world are true.”– Oregon State University Professor of Religion Marcus Borg (marcusjborg.org/mystical-experiences-of-god/)

“The same dynamic takes place when God reveals Godself to women and men. At certain times in our lives, God’s gracious presence becomes manifest in our lives as God communicates God subjectivity through subjectivity. Through concrete events in our lives, or particular words– very ordinary things– God becomes present and palpable to us in God’s incomprehensible, inexpressible, mysterious reality. This is the pattern of divine revelations: the finite reveals the infinite, the objective reveals the subjective, what is ordinary reveals what is Mystery.”– Stephen B. Bevans. Jesuit Priest and Professor of Theology and Culture at Catholic Theological Union, in An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (Orbis Books).

In non-theistic religions- such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and some traditional aboriginal religions– there is no god but an enlightenment or higher state of awareness. These can be considered constant mystical states. Jesus, Buddha, Moses and Muhammad were said to be enlightened individuals, or people living in mystical states. 

In the interview, ‘‘Can We Trust Religious Experiences?” (link ) Christian professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, William Lane Craig, said that, even using normal logic, the religious mystical experiences could be argued to be authentic. His argument is that there are many unprovable things that humans all accept as true, due to experience and innate thought. These include that the external world humans perceive is real, that the past was real, that humans aren’t computers run by a mad scientist, that they weren’t born five minutes ago with an implanted false memory of the past. He said human’s shared beliefs about these things are unprovable, yet humans accept them as self evidently true. He said people come to these conclusions using what is widely considered to be good reason and logic. He said that, along these rational lines, someone’s perceived personal experience connecting with God, coupled with that many people have these shared experiences, can just as reasonably be considered real. These mystical experiences with God probably being called real is as reasonable as the average person probably saying the external world he perceives as being real. 

Of course, it could be argued that neither perception was correct, and both involve delusion and biased answers to some degree. Both views could be delusory, and all human perception and judgment involves delusion and subjectivity.

 

SKEPTICS

Skeptics, including some scientists, say that mystical experiences are strictly in the mind and are on the order of delusions or hallucinations. That drugs and mental illnesses can lead to them have is seen to them as proof of this. Many of these people accept the humanistic, rational point of view of the world, and accept the normal human perception of the world as accurate. Many of these people use science as arbiter, and don’t buy anything that hasn’t been, or the can’t be, proven by science. 

Article: “Turns out near-death experiences are psychedelic, not religious” 

 

THE MIDDLE ROAD

These people say that the experiences are the result of changes to the brain, but that the experiences are not hallucinations or psychoses, but different than normal sensory experiences. 

Neuroscience studies of the brain support this contention that mystical experiences are different experiences of sensory information. 

During mystical experiences, the parts of the brain that are associated with filtering and translating sensory information, categorization, language, creating ideas of self, separation of self from other, perception and categorizing of time and space are reduced. The person receives the sensory information unfiltered and untranslated (or at least to a much lesser degree) by these parts of the brain. Thus, the sense of self seems to dissolve, normal categorizations and perceptions of time and space disappear, and there is a rush of sensory information. 

Additionally, there is often a rush of dopamine that makes the person feel bliss. Thus, people not only get a different rush of sensory information, but an associated sense of beauty, happiness and love. Aesthetics and emotions are an integral part of humans accepting facts and ideas. (“To humans, the meaning of life, of everything, is a matter of mood.”– Noise Music: Cognitive Psychology, Aesthetics and Epistemology).

“The frontal lobes are the most evolved areas of the human brain, and help control and make sense of the perceptual input we get from the world. When the frontal lobes’ inhibitory functions are suppressed, a door of perception can open, increasing the chances of mystical experiences.”– Jordan Grafman, Professor and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Cognitive Neurology & Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Northwestern University Medical School ( reference: livescience.com)

“When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe, which is a structure slightly above and behind our ears] or our prefrontal cortex [the section of the frontal cortex that lies at the very front of the brain] increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change. These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the ‘out of body’ and ‘extended self’ sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to. . . . At the same time, midbrain dopaminergic pathways — key circuits in the brain that create and release the neurotransmitter dopamine — are activated to release dopamine in networks of the forebrain,” — James Giordano. Professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center 

“Andrew Newberg believes a cause of these feelings is the reduced activity he saw in their parietal lobes, the orientation area of the brain responsible for perceiving three-dimensional objects in space. A meditator may experience a sense of oneness with all living things or unity because the reduced activity blurs the perceived lines between the meditator and other objects . . . When the parietal lobes are damaged, patients have distorted beliefs about their own bodies and are sometimes confused about their spatial orientation to outside objects. In an example from Why We Believe What We Believe, patients think one of their own legs is not theirs, and have been found trying to throw this other leg out of their bed. In his new book, Newberg cites a study led by Dr. Brick Johnstone that found that damage to the right parietal lobe caused patients’ self-transcendent experiences to increase.” ( Reference: theatlantic.com )

“This suggests that these spots may be linked to inhibitory cognitive functions, and a suppression of these functions, which typically help us regulate and resolve our perceptual experiences, appears to open up a ‘door of perception’, exposing people to more mystical experiences.” Dr. Irene Cristofori from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and French National Centre for Scientific Research ( reference )

The psychedelic drugs can do this. American Indians practitioners say that the peyote is not the source of the vision or mystical knowledge, but used to cleanse the mind for them to have the experience.

“Sometimes we ask the peyote to help us cleanse the illnesses away and cleanse our mental being, our spiritual being, And we believe that’s what peyote does, too. That’s why we call it a sacrament, a sacred herb.” — Navajo High Priest Fred Harvey ( reference: npr.og )

“The Peyote Sacrament and Its Way is part of the Great Mystery. Its focused agenda is for the maturing of the soul. Peyote unique abilities can cut through any resistance, whispering to the inquisitive heart a fundamental question at the core of every soul’s experience, “What are we? . . . . Indigenous people of North and South America have a long, rich tradition of experiencing themselves as part of all that we see. There is no separation between our surroundings and us. Intelligence is experienced to be in and through all things…birds, bees, rocks, trees, plants and water…the list includes all of Creation.”– Kevin ‘He Who Has Know Name’ Towt, President of Oklevueha Native American Church of Orderville and Toquerville (references: nativeamericanchurches.org)

In his book Waking From Sleep (Penguin Random House, 2010) Leeds Beckett University psychology lecturer Steve Taylor writes that schizophrenics have unfiltered sensory information– heightened senses, more information–, but without the normal conscious cognitive functions that organize it. In the book, a woman with schizophrenia said that schizophrenia is great for painting and writing poetry, but she can’t drive a car because she notices all the details in and to the side of the road (the crack in the road, a leaf, etc).

 

MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES DEMONSTRATE THE ARTIFICIAL COGNITIVE CONSTRUCTS OF THE HUMAN MIND 

This all points to that the standard human perceptions of time, space, categories, labels, linguistic explanations, rationality are artificial constructs of their mind. The mystical experiences are unfiltered, or less filtered by these. There is no separation of things, language and categories and labels don’t apply. Mysticism is a method to try and free one of these artificial constructs of the normal mind.

The conscious structures, arbitrariness and labels are required for function and survival of the species, but should not be confused for reality or objective truth. In fact, function requires false beliefs, arbitrary rules and distorting information (See chapter 18). This is is only in part because the human mind needs attention to function and function requires rules and focus, even if delusory or arbitrary. So the conscious mind is in part designed to fool and lie and hide facts from the mind and make artificial rules and constructs. And mystical experiences remove or suppress these, and people who have had mystical experiences suddenly see the falseness of these traditional perceptions.

In Awakening from Sleep, Steve Taylor writes that mystical experiences contradict ordinary consciousness in three ways:

“As we see, the experiences tell us that our normal view is false. This strong ego structure has given us some massive benefits, such as greater powers of abstract thought (when we analyse, deliberate and plan) and greater conceptual knowledge (e.g., knowledge of the laws of nature, of the structure of matter and of the universe self. It has also given us more personal autonomy, leading to more control over our life. But in a sense the ego has become overdeveloped. Its boundaries have become too strong and its self-reflective ability has muted into the chaotic thought-chatter that runs through our mind whenever our attention isn’t occupied.“

Many ancient mystical religions, such as Sufism, Buddhism and Hinduism, discuss the cleansing of the mind, ridding oneself of normal mind chatter and categorization and labels in order to perceive reality. Buddhist meditation attempts to move beyond symbolic human language. This was before science learned what was going on in the mind. 

American religious philosopher Huston Smith said that humans are divine within, as there is divinity without, but that they can be like a dirty lantern with caked on soil that masks the light. He said it is an endless quest to keep the surface of the lantern clean. (Reference: Huston Smith: Psychology of Religious Experience )

University of Pennsylvania’s Andrew Newberg says that human epiphanies, the small ‘Aha!’ moments, are moments of mystical clarity. The person is suddenly seeing things from a different picture, seeing the big picture, and things fall into place in the mind.

 

THE MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE IS EXPLAINED THROUGH ONE’S CULTURE, LANGUAGE, BELIEFS, SENSORY ABILITIES, BIOLOGY

Even if the mystical experiences of people are very similar, the individual interpretations and explanations are influenced by the individual’s background, culture and beliefs. 

In his book Religious Experiences (University of California Press, 1985), Columbia University philosophy of religion professor Wayne Proudfoot writes that mystical experiences are explained in a religious framework, and that the framework is unconscious. A Christian may say she saw the Christian God, a Muslim Allah, and an atheist a secular vision.

In his book Mysticism and Philosophy, Princeton University philosopher Walter Terence Stace says that mysticism is perception not interpretation, and that only after the mystical experience is the interpretation made. 

Psychologist Carl Jung discussed how much of human’s cognitive ordering, how they feel and react to a situation is, is evolutionarily ingrained in us. He said that the mythical archetypal visions of hero, tree of life, mother, birth, death, wise old man, are ingrained in their minds, shared by most humans, and thus theoretically appear in mystical visions across many cultures. 

With his theory of Pluralism, influential religious philosopher and Presbyterian Minister John Hick believed that if different religions have genuine views into transcendent reality (and he believed that they have), these views are filtered through each religion’s/people’s culture, time and place in history, political happenings, language, sentiments and artistic traditions. 

“In the late 1960s, Hick had (a) set of experiences that dramatically affected his life and work. While working on civil rights issues in Birmingham, he found himself working and worshiping alongside people of other faiths. During this time he began to believe that sincere adherents of other faiths experience the Transcendent just as Christians do, though with variances due to cultural, historical, and doctrinal factors. These experiences led him to develop his pluralistic hypothesis, which, relying heavily on Kant’s phenomenal/noumenal distinction, states that adherents of the major religious faiths experience the ineffable Real through their varying culturally shaped lenses. ” — David Cramer, Religious Studies Dept., Baylor University (reference) 

Hick knew how human minds work, and that the broader reality and universe are beyond human conception and senses and had to be translated for humans to grasp. The translation is via language, culture, aesthetic norms, sentiments and social standards. The sacred texts are composed by people for people and their understanding and learning, written in human language and cultural sensibilities. Jesus and Buddha used instructional parables humans could understand and relate to. Hindu texts and art uses symbols and deities to represent higher reality. Organized religions and their scriptures are human products and artifacts, and are inherently human-centric with all the associate issues that come with human-centrism and human methods of sensing and thinking.

And, as is apt to happen, some will interpret the particular path they took to achieve the mystical state (ceremony, religion, artwork, other) to be the ‘correct’ if not ‘only true’ path to enlightenment. It is like people who try to ‘objectively’ identify the best art, when the artistic experience is personally subjective.

 

EVEN BEYOND THESE DIFFERENCES CAUSED BY THE BELIEFS, THE EXPERIENCES ARE STILL NOT PROVABLE OF TRUTH

Even though these experiences point to human’s normal views of realism being artificial and arbitrary constructs, that does not mean the mystical experiences are ‘truth’ or ‘reality’– though many claim they are. 

The experiences are experiences. They may be less formed by the normal artificial cognitive constructs of the mind, but they are still formed by the limits of human senses, their biology. They are still a limited sensory view. There is no way to know this heightened sensory experience is ‘truth’ or ‘reality.’ 

In the beginning and in the end, they are experiences. Trying to interpret them, assign meaning, translate them into language, communicate what they are to others, are at odds of what the are. It is fine to have an opinion about what is this experience– but realize that it is just that, an opinion. Humans want explanations for events, but not only cannot that be done here, the rational or intuitive translation itself is opposed to the experiential nature. 

It is interesting to note that theologians say that God or higher reality is both beyond human comprehension and not. An oxymoron. They discuss how God and transcendent reality is beyond human language, logic, conception and human constructs, but that one can have a personal relationship or experience with it (mysticism). They also talk how God or transcendental reality cannot be understood intellectually but can be through the personal mystical experience. They say the mystical experience is a matter of being viscerally/experientially aware of it. They see the mystical experiences as truth, which is debatable, but are sharply aware of the dual nature of the mind and thinking. Look at the competing quotes from the Koran:

“No vision can grasp Him. He is above all comprehension.”– Quran

“Allah as close to a man as the vein in his neck.”– Quran

Mystical experiences are good as they offer a different mental viewpoint that demonstrates that the normal human view is arbitrary and false, and that there are different ways to look at things. This itself is mind expanding. However, in the end they are just experiences and there is no proof or real reason to think of them as ‘true.’ 

 

WHETHER REAL OR NOT, MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES CAN BE LIFE CHANGING

Whether or not they are truthful looks at reality, the mystical events can change people’s lives and help their lives. Even if they are not insights into objective truth, they can give people new perspectives on things, new perspectives on their lives. They can make one reflect on the artifice of one’s life and society, put things into different perspective. 

“Mystical experiences are events that can shake up your world in a single moment. They can also help us ‘on the way out’; we exit them ‘transformed,”meaning that the insights into our personal life or our very sense of being are deeper and sharper after them.” — Andrew Newberg MD, University of Pennsylvania. 

One should also not merely try to expand one’s mind through the rare mystical experience, but through daily work. This includes meditation or helpful spiritual practices, and paying attention to the world. ‘Stopping to smell the roses’ may not induce a mystical state, but it is a daily practice that opens the mind and keeps things in perspective. 

“There are two mistakes you can make. One is that you’re too afraid of them, so you don’t allow them at all in your life, you’re terrified of letting go of control. The other mistake is that you’re really attached to them, so you’re constantly searching for a high. It’s about finding a place for these experiences in your life.”– Jules Evans, research fellow at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre for the History of Human Emotions

 

SUMMARY: KEY POINTS
Mystical experiences are altered from normal states of consciousness where it seems to the experiencer that one has an expansive view or experience of the universe. The normal perception of time, categorization and space dissolve, and the senses seem more heightened. People often think they receive great insight and sublime knowledge.

Mystical experiences can happen unintentionally, and happen to both the religious and non-religious. There are many ceremonial and other methods to try to achieve them. These include religious art, music, meditation, drugs. Meditation, or meditative states, is a common strain.

Mystical experiences involve genuine neurological changes in the brain. During the experiences, the normal cognitive filters are lowered that allowed a heightened, relatively unfiltered experience of sensory information. This is often coupled with a dopamine rush that gives a good feeling and association.

There are debates about the authenticity and what the experiences mean. True believers believe them a genuine look into reality, transcends reality and even God. Skeptics say they are are just delusions on the order of hallucinations. Those in between say they are genuine sensory experiences when the filters are removed, but assign no special or ‘higher’ meaning to them.

These experiences show that the normal human concepts of labels, categories, self and time are artificial constructs of the mind. 

To the human, the mystical experiences are just sensory experiences. They cannot be explained or interpreted accurately– because that is at odds with the sensory experience. The ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’ cannot be known. Plus, the sensory information is still filtered and formed by human sensory capabilities and biological methods.

These experiences can expand the mind, by giving new experiences, by showing the shallowness of human normal thought and ways of thinking. However, they are still channeled by the mind and senses and are unverifiable.

 

FURTHER READING

Article: “How does neuroscience explain spiritual experiences”

Stephen Hawking’s Views on Mysticism and Science

Article: “Brain origins of mysticism found”

Article on runner’s high

Article: “Neurotheology: Where religion and science collide”

Article: Do Animals Have Spiritual Experiences?

 

6.11 QUESTIONS 

  • Have you had a mystical experience? If so, explain it. How did it/does it affect you?
  • What are your opinions about mystical experiences? What is your opinion about their authenticity? Are there any points in this chapter with which you disagree?
  • Do you think mystical experiences are important? Is honing them important for expanding the mind?
  • How do you think mystical experiences relate to the topic of this book? Do they serve to expand the mind? If so, how?
  • Do you believe in a transcendent reality beyond humans?